Saturday, October 1, 2016

Book Review: In the Light of the Son by Andrew Moody

Andrew Moody, a graphic designer by day and theologian by night, has recently released the layman’s version of his doctoral thesis about the Trinity: In Light of the Son: Seeing everything through the Father’s love for the Son (Matthias Media, 2015) Moody’s thesis is that the love the Father has for the Son is communicated through creation, scripture and even our own redemption. We shouldn’t start with our earthly explanations of God and extrapolate backwards into eternity.  Instead, argues Moody, our starting point is the relationship within God, between the Father and the Son (and the Holy Spirit), which then has echoes all the way through the doctrines of Creation, Redemption and Scripture. “You and I and everyone and everything else exist because God loves his Son and wants others to know, love and glorify him too.” (11) In this surprisingly short book Moody manages to coherently survey the Scriptural seat of this filial relationship (Col 1:15-20, John 5:19-23 & 1 Cor 8:5-6), the Trinitarian structure of creation, the image of God, the unique prophetic and unifying “succession” (104) of the Holy Spirit and the teleos of Christ. 

In Light of the Son was published before the most recent Trinitarian brouhaha about the connections, or lack thereof, between the doctrine of the Trinity and gender roles. The debate began as an intramural fight amoungst Complementarians but has since grown into a larger discussion about what we are allowed to say of God ad-intra, in himself. Everyone seems happy to affirm the love of the Father for the Son (and vice versa) during the History of Redemption, but some scholars put the brakes on when we ask what that relationship tells us about the immanent Godhead. For example Donald Macleod warns us that “… the love of the Father must not be regarded as initiating our salvation.” By contrast, Moody’s thesis is reminiscent of David Bentley Hart’s argument that the existence of, and our appreciation of beauty is a direct result of God’s self-revelation. “[God] is truly fully himself in all his acts ad extra, and the taxis of his salvific activity towards us is the same taxis that is his triune life.” (The Beauty of the Infinite, 159)

There is a time and a place for marshalling Scriptural proof-texts, but Moody instead directs us in the first chapter to three Biblical passages that carry the weight of his thesis. The centrepiece of the Apostle Paul’s argument, in his Epistle to the Colossians, is the mystery made known, God in Jesus. “Jesus represents God completely.” (19) From the Gospel of John Moody shows how Scripture explains the relationship between the Son and the Father. “Everything begins with the Father and everything is done through the Son.” (22) Moody then observes how Paul alludes to the Shema (Deut 6:4), when the Apostle is describing Jesus to the Corinthians (1 Cor 8:6), which shows “a complexity within the life of God.” (26) The chapter concludes with a useful Apologetic application. Moody provides two small and “familiar” (31) phrases to help us unpack the divine Father-Son relationship (27-35). “Jesus as the one who comes from God and as the one through whom God the Father works”. (149)

A trend in modern scholarship is the exultation of obscurity, an unfortunate by-product of specialisation and speculation. But the doctrine of the Trinity, says Catherine LaCugna should not be “locked up in itself and unrelated to us.” (God For Us, 2) And across the five subsequent chapters Moody’s book makes the doctrine of the Trinity both accessible and delightful. Firstly, while describing the Biblical category of “sonship” Moody shows how God accommodates himself to us. “Although we can never fully grasp who God is, or what God’s fatherhood means, we have been created similarly enough that God can speak to us and reveal himself to us.” (47) That God is accessible has practical consequences: the Jesus of the gospels is also the God of Heaven. (151) Secondly, although our world has been ruined by sin, we can still observe traces of beauty around us which in turn points to the beauty of the Father’s love for the Son. For example, we are made in the image of God, an echo of how the Son is the perfect image of God. (90)  “Jesus is the first human to represent God completely and consistently.” (95) But the Father loving and sending the Son isn’t just a theological structure; it’s a reality to delight in. This is good news, that stands in contrast to our east-of-Eden exile, which has at its heart “an attempt to console ourselves in the wake of our alienation from heaven.” (127) In other words, the essential heartache of Original Sin is being excluded from the love of the Father for the Son. However the History of Redemption ends in the Beatific Vision and our reconciliation to the three persons of God.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

How should the church handle transgender Christians?

So in the midst of our society's debate about what gender is, how do congregations accommodate people who are or have transitioned genders? Traditional binary gender is a historically and empirically observable pattern, exceptions notwithstanding. Scripture then directs us to maintain the cultural cues around male and female-ness. So how does a congregation handle someone who is transitioning from one gender to another and is either curious about Christianity or has radically altered their gender? The answer I've outlined below is actually applicable to everyone, but worth revisiting with gender-transition in mind.

1. The principle of Accommodation 
It might be uncomfortable to admit this but congregations are a mixed bunch. We are all a work in progress, putting sins to death and learning new things about God. I think it's helpful to distinguish between basic functional obedience (more on that below) and the permanent co-existence of different views on this side of eternity. If someone's foul language, violence or avarice is disruptive to the shared life of the congregation, then they can't participate. You simply can't accommodate people who refuse to allow the congregation to function. The larger society (including Christians) may have ways of helping them but the purpose of the congregation is to gather and collectively worship God and grow through discipleship.

Because we live in a world broken by sin (discipleship, discussed below, is focused more on dealing with the corruption of sin) we will gather with people who behave differently. We gather with disorganised, eccentric and hurting people. Additionally some have stricter or looser views about the participation of women, the use of instruments, the nature of the sacraments or the shape of sermons for example. Just as God accommodates himself to us, we accommodate ourselves to our brothers and sisters in Christ. Now within this, is of course a place for gently shifting someone else's patterns of behaviour or thoughts. The pastoral life of a church should be considered a permanent ongoing discussion of how best to follow Jesus.

So when it comes to people transitioning gender, we should be distinguishing between encouraging that transition (which is wrong) and being welcoming (which is right). For example if someone believes strange conspiracy theories but doesn't make a big deal of them with other people why shouldn't they be welcomed? We shouldn't encourage sin, but it may take a long time to work out how to have faith in all areas of your life. I think it's easier if someone hasn't made biological modifications to their body and more difficult if the transition is dramatic. For someone who has transitioned genders past the point of no return, they should be met half-way. What does this look like? For example: the congregation using new personal pronouns, the transgender person remaining celibate and (safely) conceding their sin, permanently etched into their body.

2. Active Discipleship
Which brings us to second principle: discipleship. From the beginning the new covenant communities have been shaped by catechism and spiritual discipleship. (For example I've illustrated this post with a picture of the Didache, one of our earliest Christian documents.) With the marginalisation of Christianity in the 21st century we've entered a healthy time of focus. Rory Shiner observes this in his article about the new shape of Christian congregations. Discipleship is a life-long project that begins with evangelism and then, as someone trusts Jesus and grows in their faith extends through out their life on this side of eternity.

Discipleship is the basic work of the church, the local gatherings of God's people. We then grow the Kingdom by applying our faith to the rest of our lives. Discipleship is the bread and butter of Christian ministry, it's about communicating the essence of the gospel and then a deepening knowledge of God and theology.  Practically discipleship includes things like participating in the gathered life of the church, one to one Bible reading, training, small discussion groups and para-church events. Notably, discipleship occurs within the larger sphere of Pastoral Care, which seeks to strengthen the well being the congregation.

So hopefully someone who had been transitioning genders and who now trusts Jesus is in the midst of active discipleship. Growing in their knowledge of God. Just as the principle of accommodation requires deep reservoirs of calmness, generosity and patience, active discipleship requires a focus of resources and priorities. Church is no longer a magical attraction machine, but a safe place with high entry requirements. Theoretically, emphasizing the safety of the gathering should guard against the legalism of a 'holy huddle' and the focus on discipleship should encourage people let their faith filter across their fence, desk or shop counter. Basically the goal is for everyone to be loving Jesus more than their sin.

[Fragment of the Didache]

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The argument for Traditional Marriage

Earlier this year ABC Western Victoria Radio asked a local Same Sex Marriage activist and I to offer our opinions about the upcoming marriage plebiscite. The evening beforehand I checked Nathan Campbell's handy tips for talking to the media and decided to mention Jesus' name as early as possible and put my argument into an accessible nutshell. This is roughly what I said:
“Christians support traditional marriage because Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew that marriage is best for a man and a woman. The law should protect traditional marriage because men and women complement each other and marriage is a safe place for their sexual expression.”
It's public radio so you can't get into a detailed discussion about sex, but that's the essence of why traditional marriage benefits society. So while you can talk about how traditional marriage benefits kids or how one change to the marriage law will lead to future (possibly problematic) changes, it all comes back to creating a safe context for male-female sexual expression.

If I had time I would've gone on to say how lots of those ideal marriages make up a healthy society. That's why traditional marriage is best for everyone. I think Christians should frame their opposition to same sex marriage positively and philosophically. These debates offer in-direct evangelistic opportunities, mainly the chance to publicly identify as a Christian, but more importantly they are an opportunity to contribute to the wider well-being of society. I also got to answer a great question of what I would do if a homosexual person wanted to join our congregation. I answered something along the lines of  “we’d welcome them like everyone else and hope they’d come to love Jesus more than anything else.”

I thought the radio show host or same sex marriage activist would've challenged my claim about gender. If they had I think I would've said something along these lines:
“I believe the world has order and meaning, that some things are one way and other things are another way. Gender distinctions can be measured in most cases and the exceptions don't make a rule. Cultural expressions of gender reinforce these underlying biological differences.”  
Human flourishing isn't just a moral thing either, it's also aesthetic. Both gender and marriage (traditionally understood) form the basis of a vast cultural structure of archetypes and tropes. What I'm saying here is that ideas have consequences; marriage isn't a just thing in a corner. So firstly, as Christians speaking into society, we need to acknowledge that we are citizens making a philosophical argument that will benefit everyone. Not a Christian argument imposed on society. This is because good ideas which are worth their salt, will have a divine providence eventually anyway. Secondly as Christians speaking about marriage, we need to imaginatively help articulate how traditional marriage and gender ripples out into culture, both morally and aesthetically.